Posts Tagged ‘International Space Station’

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Plays David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

August 11, 2017

This is awesome. It’s a video made by the astronaut Chris Hadfield, of himself playing the Bowie classic, ‘Space Oddity’, aboard the International Space Station. Which, when you think about, couldn’t be a better location.

Astronauts have played music in space before. I’ve got a feeling several Russian cosmonauts had their instruments with them back in the 1980s when they travelled to Mir, and had a jam session up there in orbit.

The SF writer Allan Steele wrote a short story, ‘Live from the Mars Hotel’ about the rise of fictional astronaut band in his anthology, Rude Astronauts. In this tale, a group of spacers on Mars form a band to keep boredom at bay during the long months on the Red Planet, especially when a howling dust storm comes down to blanket the entire world and nobody can venture outside. When they return to Earth, the band briefly find themselves celebrities. However, this rapidly wanes, and they go back to their day jobs after their all-too brief stint as space’s first rock gods.

Part of the reason for this is that they sacrifice their authentic sound for the image manufactured for them by the music industry. Their own sound, honed on Mars, is rough and gritty, authentic country ‘n’ western. However, when they play gigs back on Earth, they’re persuaded to wear spangly jumpsuits and perform with a full orchestra. It’s just too ‘Nashville’ for our roughneck space heroes. The fans sense this, and so stop listening to them.

The shots of the ISS itself and the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as Earth itself, remind me of the opening credits to the 1980s space detective series, Star Cops. This was set forty years in the future, when space was being opened up to industrial exploitation and regular space travel. Unfortunately, it only lasted a single season. Part of the problem was that many of the space/ SF fans, who would have seen it, never heard of it. I also think that it suffered because it was broadcast just after Dr. Who’s cancellation in the mid-1980s, and I think this overshadowed the show. I also think it probably suffered from being mismarketed. I think it was being advertised as detection, rather than SF, and so the trailers for it were aimed at the wrong audience. I’m quite aware, however, that there is an audience, and that there are SF stories that are basically detective yarns. They’re just set in the future with robots, aliens and mutants.

Here’s the beginning titles for Star Cops.

Well, it’s thirty years after the series was aired, and we’re still waiting for the future it envisioned. Star Cops was written by Chris Boucher, who was script editor on Blake’s 7, and was very much intended to be hard, near-future SF. The series boasted that all the technology was based on hard, science fact. Unfortunately, the dream of cheap, mass spaceflight hasn’t happened, possibly because the spaceplanes being designed at the time by Martin Marietta simply proved unviable in practice.

Still, perhaps in Skylon takes off next year, we might really see the space age begin in earnest. In the meantime, I hope there are a few more astronauts, who take the opportunity to lay down a few awesome tracks as they explore the High Frontier.

2017: The Year We Land on the Moon, according to Russian Rocket Pioneer

December 31, 2016

I was watching a talk on CD-Rom last night by Dr. Gerald K. O’Neill, one of the leading advocates of space colonisation. Way back in the 1970s, O’Neill suggested that humanity should colonise space by constructing special space habitats at the Lagrange points between the Moon and Earth. The L5 points are excellent sites for space colonies, as they’re the points at which the gravity from the Moon and Earth interact to form stable points. The space habitats he designed were solar powered cities, with areas of parkland, housing and manufacturing areas. The CD-Rom with these talks came with a book I bought nearly a decade ago by him, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Burlington Ontario: Apogee Books 2000). However, for one reason or another I hadn’t got round to watching it. I think part of the problem may have been that the computer I may have been using at the time had an incompatible version of Windows.

Along with his other arguments about the ecological and economic benefits space colonisation would bring, and the technological and scientific methods, which would be used in the construction of these colonies, Dr. O’Neill also mentioned that, according to the Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, it would be this New Year, 2017, when humanity would first break out from Earth and land on the Moon. O’Neill makes the point that instead, we got to the Moon 50 years early. He then goes on to predict that, despite cuts to NASA’s budget and the low priority given to funding science, and particularly to supporting the space programme for itself rather than those products which have spun off it, humanity will be colonising space in a centuries’ time. He even predicts that by that time, we may well be starting to send space colonies outside the solar system to colonise the neighbouring stars.

The video seems to date from around 1982, and I’m rather more pessimistic about humanity’s possible colonisation of space. There’s immense public interest in it, but it is expensive using the technology currently available. The costs aren’t prohibitively so. I went to a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society nearly a decade and a half ago, where one of the speakers pointed out that the cost of constructing an orbital hotel actually are the same as building a tower block here on Earth. And once the commercial exploitation of space begins in earnest, launch costs can be expected to fall as new ways and launch vehicles are developed to put people and objects into space more easily and cheaply. Indeed, one of the aerospace engineers talking at the Symposium also made the point that there were planes and vehicles planned in the 1940s and ’50s which would have had the ability to achieve orbit. So, far from humanity being 50 years ahead of schedule, by another set of standards we’re 60 or so years behind.

Still, I hope that with China now planning to send a probe to the far side of the Moon and its unstated intention eventually to send humans there, 2017 won’t be too far off Tsiolkovskii’s prediction. I’d like humanity to begin colonising the Moon as well as the Red Planet. At the moment, we’re just languishing, sending people to the International Space Station. It’s a great scientific achievement, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to open up the High Frontier properly.

Tim Peake and British Space Rockets

December 17, 2015

The big news in science this week as far as this country goes, was Tim Peake’s blast-off yesterday to join the crew of the International Space Station. He’s the first Brit to travel into space for nearly twenty years. Helen Sharman in the 1990s was the first Briton to go into space in a privately-funded mission in Russia. Unfortunately, the private funding didn’t appear, and she only flew thanks to the generosity of the Russian government. Towards the end of the decade, Tim Foale also flew aboard the Space Shuttle. He was not, however, technically British, as in order to participate in American shuttle programme, he’d had to take American nationality.

The launch was covered by the Beeb in their Stargazing Live programme, and there was a countdown to the launch, featuring various Beeb celebs and personalities. Down here in Bristol, even the local news programme, Points West, got in on the act. Their anchor David Garmston interviewed an Asian lady, an astrophysicist working as the education director for the @Bristol Science Centre. She had joined the competition to become the first British astronaut for over a decade, and had reached the final six before sadly being rejected. She graciously said that the better person had won, and wished Peake all the best.

In fact, long before Helen Sharman, Foale and Peake voyaged into the Final Frontier, from the 1950s to the 1970s Britain was manufacturing and experimenting with space vehicles as easily the third space power apart from America and the USSR. The rockets launched by Britain, many of them from the Woomera launch city in Australia, were the Skylark, Skua and Jaguar sounding rockets, the Blue Streak missile, Black Arrow and Black Knight. There was also a projected larger launcher, Black Prince.


Skylark Rocket

These rockets were developed at the suggestion of the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society, which in the 1950s became interested in using rockets to study Earth’s upper atmosphere. The committee invited members of the Ministry of Supply to their 1953 conference on the subject, and the result was that they were contacted by the British government to see if there would be any interest in developing such a vehicle. And from this came the Skylark programme.

These rockets were 25 feet long and 17.4 inches in diameter. They were built by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott, which made the Raven solid rocket motor which powered it. The first Skylark rocket was launched from Woomera in 1957. By 1965 over 100 such rockets had been launched. The rocket was modified, and the Raven motor replaced by the more efficient Cuckoo, so that it could lift a payload of 330 pounds 136 miles into space.

The rocket has been used to study wind, the temperature of the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, radiation and micro-meteorites.


Skua Rocket

This is another sounding rocket used to study the atmosphere. It was 8 feet long, 80 pounds in weight, but could carry a payload of 11 pound 46 miles into the atmosphere. Like today’s hobby rockets, it was re-usable, coming back to Earth via parachute, so that it could be given another load of charge and used again. A second variant of the rocket, Skua 2, could take the same payload up to 62 miles. The rocket was built by Bristol Aerojet, and was launched from a 32 foot long tube mounted on a Bedford truck.


This was developed to research the problems of aerodynamics and heating in hypersonic flight. It was a three stage rocket developed by the Aerodynamics Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, and the Aerodynamics Division of the Weapons Research Establishment in Australia. The rocket motors for the vehicle were produced by the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott.

The first stage was powered by a Rook motor, which takes the rocket to 80,000 ft. The second stage Gosling motor is fired, which increases the rocket’s speed from 3,000 ft/s to 5,500 ft/s. After this is used up, the final stage Lobster motor accelerates the rocket to 10,000 ft/s. It was capable of taking 20 pounds to an altitude of 500-600 miles.

Black Knight

Black Knight Rockets

This was developed as the test vehicle for Blue Streak, an independent nuclear missile launcher. Blue Streak was abandoned in 1960, partly because they wouldn’t be anywhere in Britain suitable to launch it from in the event of a nuclear attack. Black Knight, however, continued to be developed as rocket for scientific research. It was used for a further five years to study problems in re-entry, the upper atmosphere and carry experiments later incorporated into UK and US joint scientific satellites.

The rocket came in single and two-stage versions. The single stage version was powered by a Gamma 201 liquid rocket motor burning a mixture of High Test Peroxide and Kerosene. It was 32 ft 10 in. in length, and three feet in diameter. The rocket could reach a maximum height of 147 missiles. The rocket motor was produced by Armstrong Siddeley, and based on an existing Gamma motor developed by the RPD at Westcott.

The two-stage version of the rocket were flown from August 1964 to 25th November 1965. It was 38 ft 8 in. in length. The first stage rocket motor was powered by a Gamma 301 engine, and then by a Gamma 304, developed by Bristol Siddeley. The second stage was powered by a version of the Skylark’s Cuckoo motor, and was three feet long and 1.4 feet in diameter. It was fire back into the atmosphere so that the effect of the re-entry speeds could be studied.

A larger version of Black Knight using Gamma 303/4 motors in a vehicle 54 in. in diameter was under development in Bristol in 1963. There was also a plan to build a three stage rocket, Black Prince. This was to use Blue Streak as its first stage, a 54 inch Black Knight as the second stage and then a small, solid rocket third stage. The rocket would be 97 ft 10 in. tall, and be able to send 1,750 pound satellite into polar orbit 300 miles above the Earth.

Between September 1958 and November 1965 22 Black Knight rockets were launched from Woomera. Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight were responsible for the rocket’s overall design, construction and testing. Armstrong Siddeley of Ansty, near Coventry, were responsible for the rocket engine, and De Havilland of Hatfield were to supply the test team at Woomera. The rockets were subjected to systems checks at Highdown on the Isle of Wight, before being flown or shipped out to Woomera.

BK 10, the spare for the rocket BK 11, was returned to Britain, and donated to the Science Museum, while High Down is now the property the National Trust.

Blue Streak

Blue Streak Rocket

Although it was cancelled as an independent nuclear weapon, there was an attempt to salvage it by using it as the proposed first stage for the proposed European rocket launcher, Europa 1. It was built by Hawker-Siddeley Dynamics and Rolls Royce. It had a Rolls Royce RZ-2 engine, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen to produce 300,000 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, this also came to nothing as the European rocket launcher project was cancelled due to the failures of our European partners to produce effective, functioning second and third stages.

Black Arrow

Black Arrow Rocket

After the cancellation of the Black Knight programme, Britain continued developing its own independent satellite launcher. This was Black Arrow, a three stage rocket standing 42 feet 9 inches tall. The main contractor for the spacecraft was Westland Aircraft, which was famous in the West Country for manufacturing helicopters. The first stage was powered by a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 8 engine, burning hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. The second used a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 2 engine, while the third was powered by a solid propellant rocket, Waxwing, made by Bristol Aerojet. Sadly, the project was cancelled after it successfully launched the 220 pound Prospero satellite into a 300 mile polar orbit in November 1971.

And Now the Politics Bit

These projects were cancelled and the accumulated knowledge effectively thrown away, because the mandarins at the British Civil Service saw no value in them. They were considered too expensive, and it was believed that using American rocket launchers would be a cheaper and more cost-effective option. In fact Britain has lost out because, at least in the 1990s, it looked as if there was going to be an international market in space vehicles. Even the Indians were developing them. The launch of British satellites by the Americans meant that Britain depended on their goodwill and available space aboard their rockets.

The French, who I believe were responsible for the second stage of Europa I, the European rocket launcher, forged ahead to produce the cheap and successful Ariane, launched from their site in Kourou, French Guiana. The French rocket is actually cheaper, and more economical, than the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle, however, had the advantage in that it was heavily subsidised by the American government.

It’s therefore ironic that David Cameron should try to show the world how keenly he is supporting a British astronaut, when this is precisely what British governments have failed to do since the 1970s. Maggie Thatcher was all for Helen Sharman’s voyage into space, as that was supposed to be managed by private enterprise. Until private enterprise wasn’t able to do the job. Cameron’s government has carried on this daft and destructive policy of closing down Britain’s manufacturing base, and preferring to buy in from outside rather than develop our own industries. Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson made a speech about Britain benefiting from the ‘white heat of technology’. Those in power never listened to him, and despite Cameron mugging on Twitter, they still aren’t. You can see that from the way they’ve sold off our industries, including the defence contractors that were able to create such magnificent machines as Black Arrow. And our country is much the poorer.

Further Reading

The Encyclopaedia of Space (Hamlyn: 1968)

John Becklake, ‘British Rocket Experiments in the Late 1950s/Early 1960s in John Becklake, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics (San Diego: American Astronautical Society 1995) 153-64.

John Becklake, ‘The British Black Knight Rocket’, op. cit. 165-81.

T.M. Wilding-White, Janes Pocket Book : Space Exploration.

In this clip below, Alice Roberts from the Beeb’s Coast TV series, interviews members of the Black Arrow team on the Isle of Wight. One of them tells her how he was told to tell the rest of the team the project was cancelled and they were sacked immediately after the launch. Hansard, the parliamentary newspaper, records that the mandarin, who made the decision did so because he could see absolutely no future in the development of satellite launchers.

Here’s a British newsreel report on the Blue Streak programme from 1964. It shows the rocket being tested at Spadeadam in Scotland, and its launch in Woomera. It talks about the European Rocket Launcher programme, and some of the dignitaries attending the launch, such as the French general in charge of the European project. It also shows what a thriving community Woomera was back then, and follows Mrs Lawrence, a housewife with a part-time job as a camera operator tracking the rocket on its launch, as she goes on her 300 mile commute each day from home to the launch site.

It recalls the era as one of optimism, of a time when Australia itself, its rugged landscape and sheer vastness, were a source of fascination and wonder to Brits, long before the arrival of soap and pop stars like Kylie Minogue.

Gordon’s Alive! Vultan to Fly Aboard the International Space Station?

June 29, 2013

The stentorian voiced cult actor, mountaineer and one-man dynamo of fun Brian Blessed was on Russel Howard’s Good News on Thursday. The Dynamite Kid had been in the news that week for punching out a polar bear when it invaded his expeditions tent up in the arctic. In the chaos of the bear’s attack, Blessed retaliated by punching the bear on the nose. To his immense surprise, it ran off. Blessed is a veteran actor, who had been in a number of classic TV roles such as I, Claudius and Z Cars and as the king in the very first Blackadder series waaaay back in in 1983. He was also Vultan in Dino de Laurentiis remake of Flash Gordon, a film which the Fortean Times described as ‘camper than your gay uncle’s dressing up box’. His best known line from that movie is his cry of ‘Gordon’s Alive!’. He now repeats this whenever he appears as a guest on TV, to the huge delight of the audience.

There are deeper aspects to him beyond the exuberance and the over-acting. He supports an animal charity and said that he has about 3,000 animals. He’s also a Christian, who gave a brilliant defence of his faith on Radio 4 one morning. The son of a Durham miner, he is also quite left-wing politically. Talking to Howard, he mentioned that he’d just completed astronaut training at the Russian Zvesdny Gorodok, or Star City and was now the stand-in for the voyage to the International Space Station sometime next year. He was immensely proud of this, as he was 74. ‘Follow your dreams!’ bellowed the great man. It wouldn’t be the first time Blessed has ventured into space, if only in the confines of the TV studio. Apart from Vultan, he has always wanted to play Dr. Who. He had the role of an alien warrior king – also with a loud voice and lots of shouting – in the Colin Baker Dr. Who serial, ‘Mindwarp’. If all goes well, he’ll be travelling into space for real. Will the ISS’ intrepid crew be able to take it! Remember, in space, the whole cosmos can hear you scream ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!!!!!!’